Long before I started reviewing, I enjoyed American Players Theatre’s productions in Spring Green, Wisconsin. APT’s 110 acres showcase two theater spaces in a lovely wooded hilly forest: the 1,148-seat outdoor amphitheater and the 200-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre. The USA’s second-largest outdoor theater is devoted to classical theater and produces eight plays during its June through October season.
With the pandemic forcing us to view entertainment from a safe distance, APT has kept its followers engaged with play readings in collaboration with PBS Wisconsin, and now with YouTube and website broadcasts of the very enjoyable "The Empty Box." The project is more descriptively explained as “tales of royal screw-ups and/or extraordinary scene chewing from the APT Core Company." It’s a tradition that originates from the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and the award is literally an empty box.
The one-on-one interviews are brief, and one revealing episode follows the other. Most recently, actor and Director of Education David Daniel relayed what happened backstage during a production of one of my favorite plays, "The Royal Family."
Daniel was cast as Oscar, the burly, mustached manager. His routine was to go to his dressing room after scene two to have his dinner as he wasn’t due back onstage until scene five. Well, naturally, he had to remove his mustache to eat – and being a supportive ensemble member, he returned early to watch a scene backstage – well, I think you can fill in the blanks. But with his confessed 12-second sprint, perhaps he should consider entering the next summer Olympics.
Gavin Lawrence was cast as Macduff in that Scottish play. Macduff’s noble graceful warrior had a lack of control with his boots and a piece of scenery and consequently the young actress playing his daughter. Let’s just say Lawrence made a heavy impact on stage.
Core actor James Ridge is the first recipient of The Empty Box and currently serves on the committee to choose recipients – much to his relief, as he confesses to continuing to qualify for the award. His infamous reputation involves his portrayal of the Duke in "A Comedy of Errors," a wayward revolver and King Kong roar.
Marcus Truschinski honorably acknowledges his chewing of the scenery and extreme mishaps in past productions but notes he is noted for his introducing the phrase “I’m over it” as the serious Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice – “something stupid and contemporary” – balanced by his mind going blank.
Probably the funniest, if not most dangerous confession, is 20-year veteran Colleen Madden’s. Her list of Empty Box foibles comprises every actor’s and director's nightmares: forgetting lines, word burgers, wrong entrances, wrong exits, no props, wrong costume, etc. Madden admits she’s had a long and healthy relationship with The Empty Box. So many tales, but she relays the one that earned her the award. While portraying Raina in "Arms and the Man," she dropped an enormous match onto the floor, which promptly ignited the bottom of her nightgown. She was unaware until a first-row audience member interrupted to draw her attention to the flames.
Let’s hope that APT continues to produce and present more episodes of "The Empty Box." These vignettes are delightful for lifting spirits while distracting and reflecting the true ups and downs of the theater world.
• Regina Belt-Daniels has been involved with theater since Sister Mary Justia perhaps unwisely cast her as a bossy Mother Goose in first grade. Fifty years later, she’s still involved with theater via acting, directing, reviewing and serving on theater boards throughout Illinois.
IF YOU VIEW
WHAT: "The Empty Box"
LENGTH: Each episode runs two to five minutes